Recently, I had the unfortunate experience of royally screwing up a relationship with a freelance blogging client–in a Defcon 5, nuclear kind of way. I hesitated so long to write the apology email that it was too little, too late, and I lost any relationship that could have been salvaged (as well as my writing fee.) Not being the type to sit there and cry (for very long,) I wrote myself a template to make writing difficult emails easier, so that I’ll be prepared with an apology should I ever need one again.
So, here’s what happened: I was working on a project with a buddy of mine to write some blog posts and web copy. The buddy and I had worked together before with no hitches, and the buddy had known the client for years, so it was important to keep her happy. That’s… not what I did.
You see, I was frustrated with the project because the client was doing a lot of ‘midnight editing’ and requesting fixes for copy she had already signed off on. One day, in frustration, I replied to only my buddy out of the email thread where all three of us had been talking. I told him that I wasn’t willing to do any more revisions just for the sake of revisions.
Things went nuclear when there was a slip up in the chain and she saw my message to my friend. I hemmed and hawed, alternating between justifying my words and berating myself for them. I sat down to write an apology, and the words just didn’t come. I even convinced myself that it would be better not to say anything, and to just let the problem quietly die. Dear reader, please take note: it did not quietly die. It kicked and screamed and stared at me accusingly from the corner until I wrote the damn apology email, weeks after the fact. In the end, she said that she accepted my apology—but I did not receive my final invoice.
What I should have done was put on my big girl pants and apologized immediately. It’s very possible that I never could have come back from a screw up like that and she would have refused to pay anyway, but it at least would have shown goodwill and been a step in the right direction. I did apologize in the most sincere and professional way I knew how, but it was too little, too late. I won’t pretend that I didn’t take this screw up hard—I did. Tears were shed. Rants were had. Tea was abused in lieu of alcohol. But I’m not the type to stay down long, so I rebounded in the nerdiest way possible—I wrote a template for future apology emails.
Why You Should Have a Template Ready for your Worst Possible Emails
You might not have ever considered writing a template for difficult emails, but you should. It will prepare you for when you inevitably screw up, and make your response fast and efficient to prevent you from wasting precious time, like I did. Even more importantly, it will remind you that this isn’t the end of your business, it’s just business as usual, and everything is fixable.
To write your template, keep this tips in mind:
- Do it now, when you’re calm, and not dealing with shame, anger, embarrassment or fear. The template will be your shield from these emotions, should you ever need it.
- Keep things vague to fill in the details of your screw-up later. If you know that you’re good on the fly, you can leave it as more of a general outline, but I really recommend writing the letter out in advance and leaving room for just the key details. This will prevent you from hemming and hawing when the time comes.
- Fill in the parts that will be hardest to write when things do go south–actually type out the words “I apologize”. (Trust me, this is tough to do when you’re feeling embarrassed and defensive.)
- Remind yourself that screwing up and messing up relationships and offending folks is as much a part of business as it is a part of life, and is nearly inevitable if you’re going to grow your business and interact with many different people. It’s not the end of the world.
Here’s the actual apology email I wrote to my client. (Feel free to steal any bits that you like, or the whole darn thing!)
I understand that I owe you an apology for my words in an email to [Buddy]. I let my frustration get the better of me and spoke without thinking, and it’s because I was quite annoyed with myself that I had been unable to get the project done on the timeline I had promised. That was my fault, not yours, and it was unprofessional of me to say something that would make you think that I blamed you for the delays, as that is not the case at all. I just wanted to set the record straight on that, and I sincerely apologize.
I’m thrilled that the site is now finished and live, I think it looks fantastic and finally represents who you are a business owner. I’m quite proud of the finished product we all created, and I wish you all the best in your business.
As you can see, I had to eat quite a bit of crow, and I had quite the time getting it all down. Here’s the general template that I made from that letter:
I understand that I owe you an apology for [screw up]. I let [bad thing] happen because [reason, not excuse, stated plainly]. That was my fault. I just wanted to set the record straight on that, and I sincerely apologize.
I’m thrilled that [reminder of the good work you’ve done]. I’m quite proud of the finished product we all created, and I wish you all the best in your business.
The keys are to keep it simple, not gushing. Offer reasons, but not excuses or justifications. And at the end of the email, be sure to mention something positive that you’ve accomplished on behalf of the client in order to remind them that it isn’t all bad at a moment when they’re feeling angry or disappointed.
It’s easy to be held back by fear as a freelance blogger, especially when you’re just starting out. I certainly was. Having a concrete plan in place will help assuage that fear of offending people that can be debilitating for a new business owner. Writing out a “sorry I screwed up” email template will also help you build confidence in your business acumen–as well as flex your template-writing skills!
Take five minutes right now, and copy and paste my template above. You can put it into a Word doc or a post-it note on your desktop, or (my favorite,) as a canned response in your Gmail inbox, so that you can just drop the template in when you need it. However you decide to make it available to yourself, get out there and own your screw ups!